Saturday, June 15, 2024

Cord Jefferson’s Directorial Debut, ‘American Fiction,’ Explores Black Love and Literature

Writer/director Cord Jefferson on the set of his film AMERICAN FICTION An Orion Pictures Release Photo credit: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

American Fiction is a film that resonated with me deeply as it looks into a topic that has occupied my thoughts since high school: Are popular Black books mere money grabs, or are they authentically crafted to connect with the Black demographic? Jefferson Cord explores this question in his critically acclaimed new film, based on Percival Everett’s book “Erasure.” Taji Mag had the opportunity to catch up with the writer/director to discuss his writing and filming process for this Academy Award buzzworthy movie. 

Dapper Dr Feel (DDF):  American Fiction covers several thought-provoking themes. How did you approach balancing these themes and ensuring they were properly explored within the film?

Cord Jefferson (CJ): Both in the book and the film, my primary focus was on ensuring a thorough exploration of the narrative. What intrigued me about Erasure when I first read it was the undeniable genius of Percival Everett. The novel, like many of Percival’s works, is experimental, featuring metatextual elements, a novel within a novel, and imaginative dialogues with historical artists. 

However, translating all these intricate details into a film would have resulted in a five-hour production with an $80 million price tag. Unfortunately, I had to make choices and streamline the content. The goal was to make less cinematic aspects more visually appealing, condense certain elements, and yet preserve the original book’s spirit.

While I couldn’t incorporate every detail from the novel, I aimed to retain its meta and surreal essence, capturing the spirit without sacrificing cinematic appeal. Adapting a beloved novel is risky, especially when there’s a concern that viewers might leave the theater thinking the book was superior. However, I embraced this risk out of love for the story, aiming not to do a disservice to the narrative. I hope fans of the book feel that I successfully maintained its spirit while transforming it into a cinematic experience.

A noteworthy compliment came from Percival Everett himself, who saw the movie. He appreciated that I didn’t create a mere carbon copy of his book but used it as inspiration to craft a piece of my own art. This acknowledgment meant the world to me.

DDF: Okay. And you have an impressive cast in this film. Very impressive cast. What was it like working with such a challenging ensemble featuring Jeffrey Wright, Ericka Alexander, Issa Rae, and how did you navigate them throughout the performances, if you had to navigate them at all?

CJ: Yeah, you know, on one hand, it’s a delight – truly amazing to have such incredible actors on board. When I started reading the novel, Jeffrey Wright’s voice resonated with me, and I couldn’t help but imagine Monk as him. So, early on, I knew I wanted to send him the script, and I’m thrilled he agreed because he was the only one I had in mind. I didn’t have a plan B if he said no. However, it’s also incredibly intimidating. It’s like giving Michael Jordan notes on his jump shot – who am I to offer suggestions on how to play better basketball?

Overcoming that intimidation was a process, and I admit the first day on set was rocky. I had never directed anything before, let alone actors. While I had worked with actors on the set of TV shows, my role was always that of a writer. The first day was terrifying, but Jeffrey and I eventually found our rhythm by the second and third day, and from there, it was great. What made it great was the collaborative spirit of every actor, from Jeffrey on down. Despite their pedigrees and accolades, they were open to discussing characters and scenes, actively contributing to shaping the story as we worked through it.

For me, the most special aspect of this kind of work is the collaborative process. Filmmaking truly is a collective effort involving hundreds of people over years, and every actor brought that mindset to set. It didn’t make my job easy, but it certainly made it more manageable than I anticipated. I’ll say that.

DDF:All the Monk siblings, including Sterling K. Brown as Clifford Ellison and Tracy Ellis Ross as Lisa Ellison, have navigated challenges in their love lives and relationships. Despite their achievements in their respective careers, what do you think contributes to the complexities they face in their romantic endeavors?

CJ:  One aspect of the novel that immediately resonated with me was its reflection of my personal life dynamics. Having two older brothers, I’ve experienced the ebb and flow of relationships, at times strained and at other times wonderful. In crafting the story, I wanted to infuse it with the essence of my relationship with my siblings. Jeffrey Wright’s portrayal of Monk, a character with a certain prickliness, prompted me to balance that out with siblings who possess a contrasting dynamic—ones who can puncture Monk’s defensive bubble with their deep understanding and foundational relationship.

Siblings have a unique ability to needle and provoke us in ways no one else can. Their profound understanding of us allows them to access layers that remain hidden from the rest of the world. Some of my favorite scenes in the film involve Tracy Ellis Ross’s character Lisa and Sterling K. Brown’s Clifford skillfully navigating Monk’s exterior. Moments like playing bocce ball, where Sterling gently mocks his older brother, or Tracy’s character using a dad joke as an icebreaker to connect with her brother highlight the nuanced warmth and familiarity that exist in sibling relationships.

Despite the inevitable challenges and distance that may accumulate over the years, the love between siblings endures. I aimed to capture this complexity in the film, showcasing the ability of siblings to find their way back to each other, even in the most challenging circumstances. The final moment in the movie, where Monk reunites with his brother, becomes a pivotal representation of this enduring love. In this narrative, the more captivating romance lies in the realization that without holding onto each other, the family they once knew is slipping away. It’s a poignant exploration of the fundamental and crucial love story that transcends romantic entanglements in Monk’s life.

Without getting into too many spoilers for those who haven’t seen it, this fundamental love story takes center stage in the concluding moments of the film. It emphasizes the importance of familial bonds as Monk and his brother recognize that, without each other, the very essence of their shared history is vanishing. It becomes a story of holding onto family amidst inevitable changes and losses, making it a more compelling and meaningful narrative than a conventional romantic storyline.

DDF: I can see that Caroline( Erika Alexander) actually had an effect on him as well. That’s the reason why I guess they connected so well. She was able to puncture that facade that he had going on.

DDF: There is a discussion between Monk (Geoffrey) and Sintara (Issa Rae) where they are discussing if books by Black authors are intentional and what books are money grabs. Do you think these perspectives can be right, and could they be understood? 

CJ: Yeah, I really love that scene. What’s fascinating to me is that even though I wrote it, I still find myself unsure about who I agree with more. Interestingly, that scene is not part of the novel. When I read the novel, I anticipated it, but it never materialized. So, when I was working on the script, I made a deliberate decision to include that scene. What I truly appreciate about it is the ambiguity. I genuinely don’t know who’s right or wrong. It fluctuates based on the day and my perspective when I watch that scene.

For me, the most compelling arguments in films are the ones without a clear winner or loser. Art becomes the most interesting when it doesn’t dictate a moral lesson or present a definitive stance. While there’s a time and place for didacticism, I didn’t want this movie to spoon-feed lessons or morality. Instead, I aimed to present a series of conversations, ideas, characters, and situations, allowing the audience to form their own conclusions. I don’t have a definitive answer to your question, and I don’t believe there is a right or wrong response. We must accept that many questions, especially those concerning identity, race, class, sexuality, and gender, lack clear-cut answers. These issues are nuanced, complex, and subjective. While there might be some objective truths in the world, these topics often fall into the realm of personal belief and perspective.

So, in that scene, the interpretation varies, and that’s what I find so intriguing. There is no definitive right or wrong answer, and I hope viewers enter the scene, engage with it, and ultimately decide for themselves.

Jeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in writer/director Cord Jefferson’s AMERICAN FICTION An Orion Pictures Release Photo credit: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

DDF: There was a cool little scene that you did where Monk is writing his novel and he has the actual characters perform in front of him what he is writing. How did you come up with that scene and then also how, is that the way you write as well since you’ve written TV and movies and what have you? Is that the way that I write and that’s sort of like I picture the people right in front of me? 

CJ:Yeah, so that scene originated from the novel “Erasure,” where the entirety of the novel that Monk writes is published within the erasure. It’s a novel within a novel, spanning around 11 chapters, and it’s a significant element of the book. Reflecting the absurdity of this text in the film was crucial, but I wanted to avoid the cliché image of a writer furiously typing away at a keyboard while sipping coffee.

Instead, I opted for a more cinematic approach that would offer the audience a perspective into the madness of the book. Placing the characters right in front of Monk as he writes felt like a visually compelling way to convey what he was putting down on paper.

On another note, when people ask me about transitioning from being a writer to a director, I often share that I’ve been directing in my mind for a long time. When writing scenes, I consider what the characters wear, how they move around the room, and how they deliver specific lines. The color of the walls and other visual details are already in my mind when crafting a script. Directing, for me, is about taking that vision from the writing process and effectively communicating it to the team to bring it to life.

While I wouldn’t go as far as saying I see characters literally in front of me, I do envision the scenes, picture the people, imagine their attire, and think about how I want them to speak. In a sense, I am visualizing the entire scenario, but I’m not the kind of writer who claims the characters speak to me in the room. I find that a bit pretentious. My approach involves thinking deeply about what I want from the scene, but I don’t feel like the characters are standing before me, brandishing guns and yelling at each other. That’s a bit too dramatic for my process.

American Fiction is a must-see, beautifully shot, and expertly performed by a star-studded cast. This film is perfect for viewing with friends and family, sparking important discussions about the themes surrounding Black authors and their narratives. As both a writer and accredited critic, I found myself deeply invested in the movie, consistently contemplating the thought-provoking points raised about Black literature.

Catch American Fiction in theaters starting December 15th, featuring an outstanding cast including Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K. Brown, Erika Alexander, and Issa Rae.

Dapper Dr Feel

Felipe Patterson aka Dapper Dr. Feel, #BlackLoveConvo & Entertainment | @fdapperdr Dapper Dr. Feel is a Entertainment journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association and African American Film Association.

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